‘Once in a by-lane’ by Meha Pande

Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

Ramla and Onir were in the underground book market of Chandani Bazaar. Chandani Bazaar was called so because it bore an obvious resemblance to Dilli’s Chandani Chowk. But this Bazaar, unlike Chandani Chowk was an underground market located in the subway on the outskirt of their city. They had never been to this place but hearsay was that it never saw the light of the day and yellow bulbs were used in shops to keep them functioning.

Why were Ramla and Onir here? They were both working on a Ph.D. proposal and were in dire need of books. From friends and acquaintances, they knew that the place was dilapidated, grungy and unusually crowded but since this was their last resort, they had planned to visit it. To make their book hunt easier and to leave the madhouse as soon as possible, they carried a list with them.

Onir had jotted down the names of all books they wished to purchase from the claustrophobic market. It seemed like one of those supermarket sales where they had to purchase the items as soon as one could and run away with the products for free – the only alteration being, here, they would have to pay for the items; not merely pay but bargain too. Finally, on 2nd of June, a typically hot Sunday morning, they decided to finish their task which was already long overdue now.

They took a train from the Sultan Nagar station and absorbed in talking to one another, barely realizing how they kept crossing one station after another, they soon reached their destination. It was one of their happy days; one of those days when they agreed to practically everything, living the perfect life which had initially made them grow fond of one another. Each time they lived their perfection it sent them into a state of trance – an ecstatic moment where both world and time seemed suspended for them.

That Sunday, this tiny world of perfection – magical and spell-bound – was interrupted by the announcement in the train. They had finally arrived at the Chandani Bagh station from where this shadowy market was just a rickshaw ride away. After Onir’s negotiation with the rickshaw walah to take them in tees rupaiye instead of chalees they hopped onto it. Ramla never negotiated. She was sympathetic towards the poor and even when she knew how much they were overcharging, she always paid them whatever they asked her for. Onir was a man of sympathy too but unlike Ramla he succumbed to the limits of his reason in particular and reasonability in general. Mocking Onir for his negotiations and giving him the usual smile as they relished their ride, they looked around, both of them nervous to step into the market.

Onir was nervous for he seldom took her to such busy markets. Ramla disliked the place too; one for Onir’s dislike for people – both their kind and number- at such places and another for the gloom and obscurity which prevailed in the very aura of the market. Both of them, for reasons varied, decided to head back as soon as they could.

Ramla, since morning, had been feeling unprecedented joy but something else accompanied this joy. A feeling she was unable to decipher. In the spur of the happy, rather flawless day she had spent so far, this feeling took a backseat. As they got down from their rickshaw walking towards the market, the feeling began growing unfathomable.

She held Onir’s arm, he looked at her and smiled, just telling her, “abhi wapis chalte hain bas”. She could not tell him how she felt; for this wasn’t the time or the place to do so, more so, because she did not know the feeling herself. All she knew was – she felt familiar. She ignored it as a case of one of those phases of déjà vu she occasionally sensed. We all do, she thought to herself and continued walking with Onir, with her hand tightly clutched onto his with a grasp as powerful as that of a new born. The Bazaar was much worse than they had imagined it to be and the first sight of it invoked just two words – dark and low. It was like a horizontal home with rooms one next to another in a straight line. There was a wall along which the shops were situated, separated only by the colour of their doors, each a different shade with the name of the shop written in paint serving the twin purpose of designation and isolation. One had to bend a little to enter through the main door for these shops were just enough to accommodate a man five feet six inches tall. All of them were square in shape, something both Onir and Ramla had never seen, or imagined.

They were at Munish Book Shop – two spaces away from the public toilet in the subway. The toilet was a small cube with an open green door, a tinge of faint yellow from the light bulb inside it and the shop was no different except that it had a blue door and Munish Books was painted in white at its door. Just outside the shop was a Vodafone mobile recharge poster too, written beneath it – yahan mobile bhi recharge hotay hain. Ramla could only imagine how people worked in these crammed up spaces, spending most of their day day inside a cubicle. The déjà vu she felt kept growing stronger, her nervousness- which she now realized was a consequence of her sense of familiarity to the place- kept aggravating greatly within some corner inside her.

The owner of the shop was a strange man; strange in many ways. One, for he never looked up and spoke to his customers with his head down, remaining engaged with a pen and a notepad solving what seemed like a riddle copied onto the white sheet of his notepad from some newspaper at first. Onir asked him if he had the books listed on the piece of paper which he carried along. The man pointed towards a shelf right in front of him and said “jo hai ismein hai nikaal lo.”

The man seemed absent minded at first, but he wasn’t. He was in fact engrossed – or at least at first it looked like he was but a careful observation revealed that it was his obsession. While Onir looked for their books finding a couple of rare ones, Ramla looked at what the man was doing. Nobody knew if he was called Munish or the shop was named after someone else. He preferred people calling him Sir for he believed he knew things which none could teach or know.

Ramla stood near his table and looked curiously. She was astonished at what she saw. What looked like crosswords or riddles were actually ciphers. He seemed to decrypt some puzzles and riddles fanatically. There were a couple of squares on the white sheet of paper with letters and symbols filled into each square. There were semi circles, triangles, numbers and alphabets all over his notepad. As soon as he noticed that Ramla was peering into his work, he began teaching her, almost as neurotically as he was solving them himself. She began nodding in agreement as if she were interested in learning and said yes sir to whatever blabber he made to her and to himself. In the inner most corner of her heart she knew something was going to happen. It is a day when something shall happen, she thought. She was frightened and alarmed at the demeanour of the man yet managed to maintain her composure, at least superficially. Just when she thought they could pay him and leave Onir came up to her and told her some of the books were not available and that he would quickly go to the shop at the back to see if they had those books. He wanted Ramla to be safe and so asked her to stay at the book shop till he came back. He had not paid the man yet and left Ramla, placing the books they had to buy in her hands to keep them reserved.

It was from the very moment since Onir left the shop that Ramla felt a strange uneasiness, a strange longing to have Onir back as if he was leaving to never return. In the beginning of the day what she felt like a shadow seemed to concretize itself more and more every minute ever since Onir left her. She was distracted and scared. Scared of this unusual shopkeeper that she was left with, pretending to enjoy his puzzles and the process of his obsessive teaching. She almost began feeling that he was a neurotic psychopath and she did not have a way out of here until Onir came. What made her situation worse was that he sensed her concentration and a second of her energy moving towards the thought of Onir seemed to agitate him, as if their energies were now knotted together. The only thing inhabiting her mind and heart was Onir’s well-being as she indulged in a pretentious deliberation to gratify the shopkeeper.

The man on the other hand kept scribbling asking her to look, screaming occasionally, “Yahan dekho, dhyan kahan hai tumhara?” 

In that moment, every negative thought crossed her mind. Strangely, she was feeling the loss of Onir. She had no reason to but she still did. She was unable to understand how their life had changed unexpectedly. It was a usual day for them, in fact better than the usual- one of the best days for them and now she had herself tied up to this man- this obsessive, middle aged man, wheatish in complexion, with salt and pepper hair, a pair of spectacles on, wearing an unclean red shirt and grey trousers. Every second that elapsed made her wearier and she wished Onir would return soon. World and time had once again suspended for her and this time she pitied herself for it. This time she wanted Onir to come and break her free from this torture that she was caught in. The thought that Onir would be ignorant of the trouble she was into bothered her much more. The man realized Ramla’s lack of attentiveness, knew she was thinking of Onir instead. He screamed at her once again to which she finally broke her silence, asking him, “Onir abhi tak aaya kyu nahi” to which he answered disapprovingly, “mujhe kya pata, aajaega.”  Ramla – surrounded by pain, fear and that strange feeling she carried within her replied, to herself more than the man, “I have lost him here once. We came here once; he left me and never came back. I don’t know how I found him again. I must not let go for I don’t want to lose him again.”

She did not understand why she said those words. She had never been to this place ever before. They had come here together for the first time. Yet the force and conviction with which she uttered these words left her astounded. Instead of trying to make sense of what she had uttered, she looked out. Shockingly she had a glance at a few known faces just outside the shop. She saw a few people whom she knew – two boys from the days of their Masters programme, their classmates she never interacted with but Onir knew.

Suddenly she lit up, like she knew where Onir was all this while. It had been three hours since he had left and now she knew that he was perhaps with these old friends, helping one of them, as was his habit. They passed the place and she saw nobody with them. Her heart began to sink, as if she was losing all hope and also the composure she had kept intact, at least on the outside all this while. She did not know why she said those words. She was troubled and confused- both together but her trouble hardly gave her time to ponder over the confusion. Just when the old man screamed once again for her to pay attention, this time also telling her only if she concentrated they could have solved this one which he is nearly going to do alone now, Onir stepped in. She felt delighted, her heart pounding with joy and relief. She still did not know why she had uttered those words that she shall not see him again but in that second she completely forgot about those words or the mystery behind her utterance. She went towards the door of the shop and embraced him telling him how worried she was and how much she missed him. He looked at her with love and a smile, kissing her forehead, “All is good,” he said… He was just around the corner and it were some books which were particularly difficult to find that took his time. She felt relieved at the sight of him and insisted that they must now leave.

When Onir tried to talk to the man at the shop, he seemed rather disgruntled at how it was just Onir who had mattered to Ramla all this while and not his own work of genius. He wouldn’t react to what Onir said to him regarding the price of each book or their cumulative price. It seemed like nothing mattered to him – neither the books nor the money. Ramla insisted that they must pay him and leave or leave the books and just go. She had to tell Onir so much. She had to tell him how frightened she was, and oh! also what she had uttered while he was gone. They were trying to find a way to leave the shop but the man would neither listen to them nor let them leave. There was something even in his silence, which discomforted them even at the thought of sneaking away. They felt bound to him, by something which was terrorizing, frightening and invincible.

Luckily, a group of people entered into the shop just when Onir and Ramla were planning to leave and the man once again began to teach some new people, the art of decrypting. It was in this crowd that Onir and Ramla decided to leave. They thought if they left now it would be safer and easier and though they did not say a word to one another, it was an unsaid understanding between them to leave at precisely the same moment.

Onir quickly uttered, “We shall come in a while. Ummm… Some teachers are waiting for us outside,” and holding Ramla’s hand he moved away. They ran from the shop and three spaces away, sat right one shop away from the toilet in the dingy gully of that tunnel-market. They held hands, looking at each other, smiling when Ramla observed the toilet, remarking at the bizarreness of the cubicle and also how the tunnel market in its entirety was an unsafe corner of the city. Onir silently agreed. Their quiet agreement was suddenly hindered by someone standing right in front of them. It was the man from the shop. He looked at them with eyes full of disgust and a strange accusation that they had lied to him. He did not say a word to them, just kept looking and neither Onir knew nor did Ramla as to why they could not utter a word. The man had something in him; they knew that they would never be able to figure out what exactly it was. Onir hurriedly said, in anxiety and panic, “Oh… We met teachers. We were coming. We had to pass on the notes.”

The shopkeeper screamed. He screamed looking only at Ramla, as if Onir had not even existed, with a paper in his hand and something which looked solved, decoded scribbled all over it.

“If only you had the time to wait, you could have learnt. This is what I decoded. You could decode it. .. If only…” he yelled. He left the page stuck at an iron rod right across the space they sat at and furiously walked away. Ramla was scared, so much so that she did not even have the nerve to pick up the paper and see what the man had made of it. She did not know whether the man really knew something, if he had decoded something or if it was just a compulsive game he played. Whatever it may be, she knew she had to go back to him and display interest. She told Onir that she must. She did not know why but she knew that must now go back to the man and make him calm for his rage would leave her terrified even if they headed back home.

She said to Onir, “I think he has some mysterious powers.” Onir, for what he wanted most was her peace, asked her, “What should we do now?”

She held his hand and took him to the basement of the tunnel where a group of men played some board game – something which looked like carom (but probably wasn’t) and drank beer. Some of them, she spotted to be their classmates that she had earlier seen. Onir did not drink, she knew this and so without worry she asked him to join the company of men until she bid a goodbye to the man.

She said, “We’ll meet here.” Onir smilingly nodded to indicate that he would.

Ramla was left once again with the same strange sense of uneasiness wrapping her up in itself which she felt when Onir had left earlier. The last thing she saw was Onir’s smiling face telling her that he shall be there. It looked like he seemed to enjoy the thought of playing the game there and looking at him, she felt joyous.

Ramla ran to the upper floor of the dingy enclosed tunnel up to the book shop. The man was no longer there. She looked for him. He had gone, disappeared. She thought to herself,what a waste of time it was to have come all this way simultaneously regretting her decision of not leaving with Onir earlier. Something which made her utter the words ‘she would lose him the second time’ made her run at her fastest pace, looking all around for Onir.

She ran to the basement and discovered what the insides of her already knew. He was gone. She did not know where but he was gone. And she knew she would not find him. She ran to every shop looking for Onir, opening the door of the toilet only to accidentally bump into a woman coming out of it, she apologized to her. She had checked everywhere and she did not check again for she could sense the outcome.

She knew in her heart that she would not find him. She stood still at the green door of the toilet from where she could see the brightness of the day – an exit, the same gate they had entered this tunnel-market from. She took her first step towards the gate, and the second, and then the third. Walking… She realized something in that strange sense of calm which now engulfed her. She knew it now. Everything now made sense to her. The meaning of her name and the words she had uttered. She had finally decoded it, something the man kept telling her to do, and finally did for her. It could all be summed up in a single sentence which kept reiterating inside her head as she walked towards the light outside.

Now, she knew what she could never understand, why she was named Ramla: a Swahili name meaning the fortune teller. And if only she looked, she would know what reiterated in her head is what the man had decoded too. The piece of paper she never looked at had the following words, each of them scribbled somewhere in its half-torn corners around the symbols.


What we sometimes understand to be a memory of the past is but in fact a memory for the future.

Glossary:

  1. tees rupaiye: Thirty Rupees
  2. chalees: Forty
  3. abhi wapis chale hain bas: We shall leave immediately
  4. yahan mobile bhi recharge hotay hain: Mobile recharges are available here
  5. jo hai ismein hai nikaal lo : Whatever I have in in here, take it yourself.
  6. Yahan dekho, dhyan kahan hai tumhara: Look here, where is it that you are engrossed?
  7. Mujhe kya pata, aajaega: How would I know? He shall come when he must.
  8. Onir abhi tak aaya kyu nahi: Why isn’t Onir here yet?

About the Author-

Meha Pande, 24 years old, is from New Delhi. Having completed her Masters in English Literature from Ramjas College, she is presently an MPhil scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Working on Diaspora in the writings of Jhumpa Lahiri, she has just begun her career in the academic field with teaching experience at the University of Delhi. Belonging to a defence background, she has spent her life at many places in India. Inspired by Indian English short story as a form and the magical texture of the Marquezian world for quite some time now, this story is her attempt at conjoining the two together.

 

Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)

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3 comments for “‘Once in a by-lane’ by Meha Pande

  1. kanav Gupta
    06/06/2013 at 1:51 pm

    Lovely story. Still thinking what just happened!

  2. raman
    06/06/2013 at 7:36 pm

    Brilliant meha..!!!!

  3. Swati Sharan
    09/06/2013 at 10:20 pm

    where did Onir go?! brilliant..way to go!

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